Friday, December 31, 2021

Socially Engaged Buddhism: essay for Upaya's course


Susan M. Schultz

Socially Engaged Teaching and Writing: Mental Health

I retired this past June. Since then, I have worked with NAMI support groups on zoom to extend the mental health work described below. But the year was mainly devoted to writing about the activism I did at UHM. In that sense, my engagement was both retrospective and prospective, as I’m looking for a direction to go with mental health activism. This essay links to two others I wrote during this past year, as well as to attention exercises I had my students do during my last decade of teaching.

I only walked out of two classes in my 31 years of teaching at the University of Hawai`i. The first time had to do with student nastiness, the second with apathy. In the second, as in all my creative writing classes, I assigned readings to discuss and then to use as models for poems and vignettes. I grew more frustrated as the semester wore on. One day I pointedly asked each students if they’d done the reading. Only one student had, a veteran, older than the others. I felt anger rising from my gut, said something about how I couldn’t teach if no one did the reading, and left the room.

And then I wondered why they weren’t reading. I wrote a brief questionnaire asking how many hours a week they worked, how many they studied, what else was going on in their lives. What I found was that most of them worked many more hours than they studied. I also discovered the following: one young man was caregiving his grandfather; a young woman’s father had died in California earlier in the semester; a young man who acted out a lot in class had tried to kill himself in his car. (He wrote an email to say he was going to miss class because he was feeling suicidal, but the email came after the fact.)

J. composed a song for our class, played it via zoom on her home keyboard. She was a gifted writer, as well, and kind to other students across the boundaries of zoom boxes. When she began to miss classes, I asked what was going on. Her roommate was drinking herself to death, she said, which was even more awful because J. was an addict and trying to stay clean. She wrote about a sexual assault she had suffered a few years ago.

The class I walked out of had been centered around “attention.” This was one of the first I devoted to seeing and hearing the world as it is. What to do when no one had the energy or the stillness to attend? And how could I guide them, when they were so tired and stressed out? How could I change my own way of being with them, taking into account this new world of overwork and overstimulation?

This class had come at around the same time I started doing mental health advocacy on my campus. In the classes that followed this one, I talked openly about mental health issues (I always had) and gave students “attention exercises” each week, along with a requirement that they do nothing for 10 minutes a day. (Hard one to judge, I know.) These exercises emphasized randomness, wandering, staring, eavesdropping, and other skills underutilized in college curriculums. Here are the first five exercises:

1. Look at a raisin for eight full minutes, then eat it very slowly.

2. Take your dog on a walk and notice what your dog notices.

3. Spend 15 minutes watching and listening to your cat. (Any animal is fine, including geckos, lizards, guinea pigs, and so on.)

4. Spend 15 minutes sitting in a public place (bus stop, mall, etc.). What do you hear and see?

5. Spend 15 minutes with a photograph or a still from the television. Describe exactly what you see. You might also draw what you see, if you wish. Then write about the process of drawing what you saw.

You can find the full list of these exercises on my blog: We also read Harryette Mullen’s Tanka Diary, and Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, as well as haiku translated from the Japanese. I set the stage for this deep immersion in nothing-in-particular on the first day of class, when we did a meditative walk on campus, slowly around a small pond. (“At first I hated it, then by the second time around, I was enjoying noticing things,” was a typical comment.) One student’s final project was a blow by blow record of what happened in class: who said what, what we wrote, how we walked with my dog Lilith in one of our class outings, noticing what she noticed.

R. was an older student from Canada. She’d lived in South Korea, where she spent time at a monastery. A bad car accident had left her with brain damage; an ex-husband had raped her; her family, which was far away, had not been kind, though she wanted to see her mother who was dying of cancer. She was living in a room in a house whose walls were paper thin. She had biofeedback treatment for her frequent headaches and trouble concentrating, but any more treatment than that was inaccessible to her. She made it through one of my classes with great effort, and with flying colors. She didn’t finish her second semester with me. I think she returned to Canada.

My academic career turned, finally, away from knowledge and toward wisdom. Rather than teach students about the rules that ordain a sonnet, I taught them how to think like a sonnet, based on their direct experience of the world. I also spent more and more time advocating for better mental health resources, suicide prevention, and openness about the deaths of students and faculty. I wrote an extended essay on my activism here: This essay gets at the unfortunate fact that improving mental health care at my university (and many others) has more to do with PR than with actual care. The university knows its audience is not its students, but their parents and especially the legislature. Arguments based on ethics or morality (students are dying of despair and we owe them our support!) fall flat. Only financial considerations matter, along with desperate attempts to avoid appearing in the local media or in court. I hear Roshi Joan quoting Roshi Bernie Glassman on getting up every day and doing one’s work, without expectations for “success.” This has been a difficult lesson.

A. was a lively, active student, alert to others and to the work we were doing. Her father, a veteran, had killed himself. Another woman in that class had a father who threatened to kill himself; my discussion of suicide prevention triggered her. A third woman’s father was a binge alcoholic; when he was drinking, she stayed home to watch over him, missing classes. She got a quick appointment at the Counseling Center (on my recommendation, I told her to say she was in crisis), was told she needed therapy they couldn’t offer, but that her situation was not a crisis.

Along with the essay I cited earlier, I wrote a long solicited post for the University of Pennsylvania blog, Psyche on Campus: In this short essay, which includes a poem, I write about a flyer UHM that advertised a “Love Yourself Workshop.” Among the many deep problems with the flyer, and the workshop it advertises, is the idea that loving oneself as an individual will bring you better mental health. It’s the mental health equivalent of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps when you have no straps, or boots. If you attend the workshop, however, you might get some balloons. (I hated the Counseling Center’s balloons, which they pulled out for their rare appearances in public spaces. But one such day I was taking the public bus home, when I saw a young man clutching his balloon; on it was a tag with mental health resources.)

C., who was from out of state, suffered PTSD. The Counseling Center’s wait list was over 80 souls long. She reached out to a therapist back home (this was the pre-zoom days). In the same class, another young woman missed class because she had to pay her own rent and that of a roommate who wasn’t able to pay. Late in the class, she revealed that she’d only recently gotten out of an abusive relationship. I do not teach poetry as therapy, but there were tears at the end of that semester; not all of them were hers.

My anger at my non-reading students was matched by my rage against the university’s administration. More than once I performed my anger in front of an audience (twice in front of members of student government, another time in front of the college senate executive committee). I am half-Irish, after all, a bit of a pugilist. But there’s a limit to what rage can do, and there was a severe limit to what administration was willing to accomplish. What I discovered then, and was amplified greatly in my time with SEBT, was that real changes were made from “below.” My department began to have more conversations about our students’ mental health; connections were made by way of my Compassion Hui across campus; students came forward more to talk about their issues.

Talking about mental health issues doesn’t solve them, of course, nor does any number of “attention exercises.” But what I’m working toward now, during and after this course, is a consideration of how to create closer communities. As a wise friend of mine told me that “we all need to feel protected.” Expressions of care are a start. Students my last couple of zoomed semesters told me they were happy I checked in with them before every class. No one said a lot about their situations in front of the others, but a space was opened for them, and some spoke to me directly. In an odd sense, this past year has made me less ambitious in my activism, if “ambition” can be said to lead to structural changes. Instead, I’ve learned how difficult it is to change institutions, but how effective one can be in organizing small groups around care for themselves and their group.

One of my colleagues, who left UHM after four years, said he knew of graduate students who were homeless. UH has released information that 40% of its students suffer from food insecurity. My colleague organized talking sessions, where students shared their problems in turn, no one interrupting anyone else. I often wonder how students can learn anything, when they’re trying so hard simply to survive. My colleague said he’d talked to other young faculty who said they’d never seen such high levels of trauma in their students at other schools.

During the past year, I’ve sat in on support groups for people dealing with the illness of a family member, along with one peer group meeting. Participants talk about daughters and sons and partners with bipolar illness, personality disorder, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, addictions to meth and/or alcohol. Pervasive anxiety and depression bring up the rear. Some hope that their family members will get arrested; it’s the only way for them to get care. Others wonder whether they should throw their son or daughter out of the house. They all suffer in the presence of so much suffering. It’s a lot to expect people so burdened to support one another. During one meeting a man whose son suffers schizoaffective disorder talked about how angry he used to get with his son. They fought constantly. He and his wife went to a therapist who told them never to get in fights with their son. “Approach only with love,” they were told. According to husband and wife, that advice has improved their situation immensely. He delivered the message of G.R.A.C.E. in a single sentence. This year has been filled with such connections for me, and I greatly appreciate the teachings and fellowship.

A year after the class I walked out of, I ran into one of the students parking on a street near campus. She hailed me. “I saw a shama thrush the other day,” she said, “and I watched it for a long time.”

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